One of the first signs that Monday’s White House coronavirus task force briefing was going further off the rails than usual was the early appearance of Dr. Anthony Fauci at the microphone.
Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been among the few trustworthy voices in that room, taking care, day after day, to stick to the facts.
But the doctor is only human, and every once in a while we have gotten brief glimpses of how hard it must be for him to cope with the president’s incessant need to politicize everything. Remember when, a few weeks ago, he rubbed his forehead as President Donald Trump spoke dismissively of the “deep state”?
Trump cultists pounced on that and similar moments, accusing the doctor of undermining the president, of advocating public health measures that will kill the economy, of throwing cold water on an unproven drug cocktail that the president and his partisans have embraced as a likely miracle cure for COVID-19.
When Trump invited Fauci to the microphone early in the briefing Monday, I was expecting to hear about the latest progress in the fight against the disease, which has already claimed more than 23,000 American lives with no end in sight.
It soon became clear that Fauci was not there in his usual role of providing accurate information to an anxious public.
He was there to make amends to the president, whom he had ticked off by telling the truth.
A day earlier, Fauci had told CNN’s Jake Tapper that if the country had started mitigation measures such as staying home and social distancing earlier —in mid-February rather several weeks later —lives might have been saved.
“I mean, obviously, you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives,” Fauci told Tapper. “But what goes into those decisions is complicated. … But there was a lot of pushback about shutting things down back then.”
That shouldn’t have been a controversial statement —simply a fact. But to Trump and his science-averse supporters, speaking about the obvious and the logical was taken as an unforgivable act of insubordination.
After a failed California Republican congressional candidate tweeted the hashtag #FireFauci, the impulsive president retweeted her to his 77 million followers, leading to speculation that Fauci’s head, like those of many before him, was on the chopping block.
So there was Fauci on Monday, backtracking, not because he’d said anything wrong, but because he needs to stay in the president’s good graces to do his job and try to protect the nation.
Fauci said he’d used “a poor choice of words” on Sunday, which had gotten him “into some difficulty.” (Difficulty with whom? Doesn’t that choice of words tell you all you need to know?)
“Clearly,” Fauci said, “as happens all the time, there were interpretations of that response to a hypothetical question that I just thought would be nice for me to clarify.” (Nice for whom?)
My heart sank.
I don’t believe for a second that Fauci used a poor choice of words, and you shouldn’t either. It was jarring and sad to see this respected scientist forced into what we can only conclude was a deal with our devilish president: Take back the truth, Anthony, or you’re history.
With the humiliation of Fauci out of the way, the president spent the next hour trashing his critics, and venting about a Sunday New York Times story that meticulously chronicled how he was warned again and again by health officials, but missed critical opportunities to get ahead of the virus’ curve.
“Everything we did was right,” Trump insisted.
To the astonishment of the reporters in the room (and those of us watching at home), he then played a campaign-style video featuring clip after clip of public officials lauding his judgment. It was a sickening display by a man who is incapable of understanding that anything —even a killer pandemic —is bigger than he is.
Inside the briefing room, at least one reporter spotted a problem with the timeline in Trump’s video, which was supposed to be a moment-by-moment chronicle of the government’s flawless response to the coronavirus. There was a nearly monthlong gap.
Paula Reid of CBS pointed out that there was nothing on the timeline between Feb. 6, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began shipping test kits, and March 2, when pharmaceutical companies began testing a vaccine.
“The argument is you bought yourself some time,” said Reid. “You didn’t use it to prepare hospitals, you didn’t use it to ramp up testing. Right now, nearly 20 million people are unemployed, thousands of Americans are dead.”
“You’re so disgraceful,” Trump replied. “It’s a disgraceful question.”
“But what did you do with the time that you bought?” Reid persisted.
“A lot. A lot,” he said. “And in fact, we’ll give you a list. … You know you’re a fake.”
That list, should he ever release it, will show that Trump spent most of February and half of March downplaying the danger.
It was not until mid-March, in fact, that he seemed to realize that the coronavirus wasn’t simply going to disappear with warm weather, and that one day, perhaps as soon as November, he will be held to account for his failure to lead.
Robin Abcarian is an opinion columnist at the Los Angeles Times.